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Q&A: What’s Eating Gilbert Gottfried?

Illustration by DREW FRIEDMAN via LOWBROW READER

DISCUSSED: Groucho Marx, Dick Cavett, Milton Berle’s cock, Ben Kingsley, Katharine Hepburn, F-Troop’s Larry Storch, Forrest Tucker’s cock, Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, the Screen Actors Guild, Communists, the Godfather, fucking Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon, Danny Aiello, getting fired from SNL, Eddie Murphy, The Beatles, Herman’s Hermits, Do The Right Thing, getting fired by Aflac, suing the pants off Aflac.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Preparing for our Q&A with Gilbert Gottfried I came across this elegantly-rendered and wizardly-reasoned assessment of Brand Gottfried by Jay Ruttenberg in the Lowbrow Reader. He says it better than I ever could, so let’s let this excerpt serve as the intro for our Q&A. (I urge you to click through the link at the end and read the whole thing. And how about this illustration from the always awesome Drew Friedman? Likewise I would urge the unitiated to go HERE and check out his work.)

In 1987, Gilbert Gottfried made his debut appearance on Howard Stern’s radio program. Although it went unspoken, the host and his guest had somewhat overlapping lives. Both men were in their early 30s and clinging to the fringes of show business. Both were Jewish nerds who had come of age as outsiders in rough patches of New York: Stern in a predominantly black area of Long Island; Gottfried in pre-chic Brooklyn and the East Village of burning tenements and open-air heroin bazaars. They found escape and salvation through the junky pop culture of monster movies, super heroes, rock & roll, and comedy. And while both performers’ acts had roots in the ’70s, their entry to comedy’s major leagues began at the dawn of the ’80s, when Stern paired with his invaluable on-air foil Robin Quivers and Gottfried started his short-lived—and little-remembered—tenure on Saturday Night Live. […]

Gottfried’s Hollywood stock, in the conventional sense, probably peaked in the early ’90s, when he appeared in the Problem Child movies, voiced a parrot in Disney’s Aladdin, and hosted USA Up All Night, a B-movie program on basic cable. In 1987, he had headlined a sitcom pilot, Norman’s Corner, which aired as a Cinemax special before fading into the abyss. The show was co-written by Larry David just before he created Seinfeld. I have heard comedians—albeit mildly demented ones—swear by Norman’s Corner as the Seinfeld-that-might-have-been. Now approaching 60, the comedian remains a prolific character actor and a reliably screeching voice in cartoons. His moments in the spotlight generally transpire because he has said something wildly inappropriate—a comedy mode that Gottfried has raised to an art form, if not raison d’être. In 2011, Gottfried famously got fired as the voice of the Aflac duck mascot after writing a series of corny Twitter jokes about the Japanese tsunami. (A sample: “I fucked a girl in Japan. She screamed, ‘I feel the earth move and I’m getting wet.’”) The loss of the long-running commercial gig clearly unnerved Gottfried, a notorious penny pincher who was apparently unaware that Aflac conducts the bulk of its business in Japan.

A decade earlier, however, his pathological yearning for vulgarity yielded what likely will prove his career apex. Appearing at a Friars Club Roast weeks after the World Trade Center attack, Gottfried took the podium bedecked in the kind of ill-fitting tuxedo a circus monkey might favor and cracked what Frank Rich, in the New York Times, described as the first public 9/11 joke: “I have a flight to California. I can’t get a direct flight—they said they have to stop at the Empire State Building first.” The joke was met by boos and an audience member’s cry of “too soon,” a phrase that quickly entered the lexicon, deployed when a comedian has made an appalling remark about a recent tragedy. (With alarming frequency, that comedian tends to be Gottfried.) – JAY RUTTENBERG Lowbrow Reader

***

PHAWKER: My first question is about The Voice. Where did The Voice come from, what was it inspired by, and what motivated you to want to deliver jokes in this shouty-screechy tone?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: My normal speaking voice sounds exactly like Ben Kingsley. When people ask me about my voice and my delivery, and everything like that — I never consciously thought of developing anything. I used to go onstage all the time, and over a long period of years. One day you wake up and think, ‘Wow, I’ve been doing it this way for a long time.’ To me, when people ask where it came from, it’s kind of like going up to someone in the street and going, ‘Hey, the way you are walking around and moving your arms and pronouncing certain words, how did you develop that?’

PHAWKER: Point taken. On your Podcast, which I will plug here, Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, you interview people that have influenced your comedy. Your first guest was Dick Cavett, who I love. Dick Cavett, the man for whom the word ‘plummy’ was invented.Maybe I’m tin-eared, but I’m not hearing Dick Cavett in your work. Tell me about how or why he became an influence. You used to watch him as a kid?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Yeah, it’s not necessarily people that have influenced me directly, but people I liked growing up. I had, and still have a fascination with the show business that I grew up with. Dick Cavett was on the air all the time back then. He would have the guests that no one else had, like one week he’d have Katharine Hepburn. The next, it would be John and Yoko, and then Groucho Marx. All of that became fascinating to me. I became especially fascinated listening to Groucho on there, ‘cause he had turned into this weak old man with a quivering voice. It fascinated me more than even than the Marx Brothers movies, which I was a tremendous fan of, because those used to be shown all the time on TV.

PHAWKER: What other once-famous/now-on-the-skids show biz personalities have you had on your podcast?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Oh, so many. Larry Storch from F Troop is still alive, and still alert. I went up to his apartment, and interviewed him. He’s in his nineties, and he stands on his head every morning

PHAWKER: Larry Storch was the blonde, tall guy? Or was he Agarn?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: No, Larry Storch was Agarn, the lanky one. The other one was Forrest Tucker. I kept trying to get Larry Storch to talk about Forrest Tucker, because Forrest Tucker was kind of famous that Milton Berle was famous for, and that was an extremely large penis.

PHAWKER: I did not know about this.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Yeah. People know about Milton Berle, because he was showing everybody. I got confirmation when I interviewed Jeff Ross who actually saw Milton Berle’s penis. I tried to get Larry Storch to talk about Forrest Tucker’s penis, but he wouldn’t take the bait. [Laughs] He wouldn’t bite the worm, so to speak. [Laughs]

PHAWKER: Any other stories or anecdotes, as Joe Franklin would say?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Yeah. I interviewed Boris Karloff’s daughter, and I’d heard some of these stories before, and she confirmed them and went into detail. Karloff once met Frank Sinatra at a restaurant, and Karloff said to him, ‘You sing with your voice, you have to learn to act with your voice.’ And Boris Karloff was teaching acting to Frank Sinatra, and Boris Karloff and James Cagney were among the first to start forming unions for actors. I think they actually formed the Screen Actors Guild.

PHAWKER: And then Reagan came around and rooted out all of the Communists, thank fucking God.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: [Laughs]

PHAWKER: How about one more?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I had on Gianni Russo, who was in The Godfather, and he played the character Carlo, who is the one that’s married to Talia Shire. During the [podcast] interview he said, ‘In real life, I’ve killed three people.’ And then he goes, ‘I mean, three people that I can talk about.’ I guess, apparently, you’re allowed to kill three people legally, and you can tell everybody about it. I think once you get to four murders, it’s illegal. So, he was telling us about the people he’s killed, and I said, ‘Why did you kill them?’ He said, ‘What would you do if someone was threatening your children?’ I said, ‘Well, my children would be in trouble.’ He said that he had sex with Marilyn Monroe. So far, Marilyn Monroe hasn’t come forth to dispute it. So, I guess it’s true.

PHAWKER: It’s not been knocked down yet by Marilyn’s people.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: David Steinberg was on, and he was talking about how he was on Nixon’s enemy list, and he noticed, he would go from town to town on tour, and whenever he would do a Nixon joke he would get heckled. People would be screaming, ‘Get off the stage!’ and ‘You’re not funny!’ He started to realize, it was the same hecklers from state to state. It was like, sent by the Nixon administration.

PHAWKER: Wow. They had their own comedy dirty tricks division?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I guess so. Danny Aiello was on the show, and he was a lot of fun. He not only has loads of stories, but it’s like he doesn’t talk. He acts out everything.

PHAWKER: The last time I remember seeing him was in Do the Right Thing, or maybe Jacob’s Ladder. Has he been in anything as of late, is he still acting?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Yeah! I had seen him in a play. Well, not the actual play. They were having a reading at The Friar’s Club of a play he did called ‘The Shoemaker,’ which he was terrific in. It’s funny, he was one of those actors who, for a while there, it seemed like he was in every single movie that came out.

PHAWKER: Totally, and he always kind of played the wise, old Italian pizza maker.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Oh, yes. [Laughs]

PHAWKER: Getting back to you for a bit here. What was your ‘aha moment’ as a kid where it was like, ‘This is what I wanna do?’

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I’ve never really given myself any label like that. It’s funny, with ‘aha moments,’ I think people create ‘aha moments,’ and I don’t think they really exist in real life. It always sounds better when someone says, ‘And at this exact moment, I knew…’

PHAWKER: Totally. They’re always invented after the fact. It’s part of making your creation myth, I suppose.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I saw a dead pigeon blocking up the street, and at that point…

PHAWKER: That’s when you knew you wanted to be an insult comic?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Yes. [Laughs] When I saw a dead pigeon.

PHAWKER: Earlier in your career you were on SNL, I think it was early 1980, but you didn’t click there. Why do you think that was?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Oh, well, the whole show didn’t click. We had come in right after the original cast and crew of Lorne Michaels, and all the original players who left. We were already being attacked way before the show was on the air. Just the announcement that ‘How dare they come in with a new crew and cast?!’ Back then, it was like if in the middle of Beatlemania, you said, ‘We’re getting rid of John, Paul, George and Ringo, and we’ve got these four other shmucks we want you to listen to.

PHAWKER: ‘They’re called Herman Hermits and you’re gonna love ‘em!’

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Oh, yeah. [Laughs] Exactly. It was like, you can never be the replacement, you should be the replacement of the replacement. It seems like it has to be the sacrificial lamb that gets slaughtered. I think our season was the sacrificial lamb.

PHAWKER: That’s the Dick Ebersol era, correct?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: No, Jean Doumanian was the producer with my cast. One thing I remember is that I was sitting in someone else’s office with Eddie Murphy, who was another cast member at the time. At one point we were sitting by ourselves in there, just hanging out, and some guy sticks his head in the office, and he goes, ‘Eddie, pick up line one.’ Eddie picks up the phone, and he goes, ‘Uh huh, uh huh… oh shit.’ And he goes no, no. I won’t tell anybody. Then, he hangs up, and before the phone is even totally hung up, he goes ‘They just fired Jean.’ And then I remember a day or so later, Dick Ebersol comes in, and he calls everyone together, and he says, ‘I’m gonna be the new producer, I’m gonna just make some small changes here and there.’ And he goes, ‘I want everyone to take a week off, when you come back, I’ll tell you the little changes we’ll be making.’ And when we came back, I remember, I was waiting outside his office to be called in. Right outside the office was this desk where they used to put the fan letters, and I saw one addressed to me from some girl from Ohio or Indiana, or something. I opened it up, and it says, ‘Dear Gilbert, I am so sorry about what happened to you. I’ll really miss you on the show.’ So, that’s how I found out I was fired.

PHAWKER: Your big breakout was doing these really improvised spots for MTV, which is where I first saw you. You basically were just standing there ranting in this old thrift store tuxedo jacket. I just went back and watched them on You Tube and they still hold up.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I remember when that happened. It’s like, some people from MTV had come into Catch A Rising Star, and it was bunch of different comics they saw that would come in and audition. I just came in, and I just went on. I had nothing prepared. I just started rambling and improvising stuff, and next thing I know, they’ve already chopped them up, and are playing them on MTV all through the day. That’s when people first started to really notice me. I remember my agents then jumped into action, and took out ten percent of it. There are certain things you can always rely on manager for.

PHAWKER: OK, last question: can we talk about the Aflac thing for a second?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Sure.

PHAWKER: If you had to do it over, what would you do differently, if anything?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: It’s a funny thing. It’s like, I’m sorry about losing a job, but I’m not sorry about making jokes. It’s so silly. Someone tweeted me and they said, ‘Aflac fires Gilbert Gottfried after discovering he’s a comedian.’

PHAWKER: [Laughs] That’s good.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I thought that was perfect, and I found out I was fired from Aflac through the Internet. I hadn’t heard anything from them at that point, and I was all over the Internet.

PHAWKER: You didn’t hear from them first?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: No. Right off the Internet.

PHAWKER: You have a track record of being the last person to know that you’re fired.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Oh, yes. It was one of those things like, I think it was a convenient outrage for them. Because, they fired me, got loads of free publicity off of it, and then hired a guy who would imitate my voice for less money. Thus, bringing closure to a horrible tragedy.

PHAWKER: I was going to ask, this guy’s name is Daniel McKeague. Apparently, he came from sales prior to his current tenure as your replacement. Can you not sue him for impersonating you? Tom Waits sued Frito Lay for hiring a Tom Waits impersonator back in the late eighties, and he won $2.5 million for that.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: Yeah, I know. That’s something that I’ll have to think about, certainly. See, it is an awful thing because it’s a voice character I created.

PHAWKER: Was it clearly spelled out in the contract that it was their intellectual property, and not yours?

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: I don’t know.

PHAWKER: I would look into this, my friend. We should end this interview right now, and you should call your lawyer. And I would like my 10 percent as your advisor on this.

GILBERT GOTTFRIED: There’s that thing of having to send an apology these days, with everything. I wrote an article for Playboy that you could look up online, called ‘The Apology Epidemic.’ I always feel like nowadays, each joke should come with a set of instructions: If you hear a joke that you think is funny, laugh. If you don’t think it’s funny, don’t laugh. Being outraged about a joke is idiotic.



GILBERT GOTTFRIED PERFORMS AT HELIUM COMEDY CLUB SEPT. 11-13

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